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The Plant That Hides from Humans

small Fritillaria delavayi
Photographer: Yang Niu, National Geographic

Humans and plants have lived beside each other for millennia. The successful propagation of the human race has been possible largely thanks to this human-plant relationship. That is why this plant is of particular interest to us.

Fritillaria delavayi is a small herb that grows in the Hengduan Mountains in southwest China. It has a short stature and grows a few bright green leaves. Once a year, it grows an eye-catching yellow flower. But in recent years, this colourful display has instead given way to a dull grey and brown look. According to scientists in China and the UK, this camouflage occurs mostly in areas with high harvest rates. This has led scientists to suspect that the plant is genetically evolving mechanisms to avoid detection and harvest by humans.

Chinese traditional medicine has utilized this herb for hundreds of years, to treat respiratory ailments like bronchitis or a bad cough. The increase in demand and lack of corresponding supply levels has shot up the rates for this herb. The bulb of the plant, which is the part that has medicinal value, costs about $480 for one kilogram. With one bulb being the size of a thumbnail, harvesting one kilogram worth of bulbs will require more than 3,500 plants.

Though it is possible to cultivate Fritillaria, consumers prefer the wild varieties of the plant, which grows in cold, dry air conditions at high altitudes, which is difficult to replicate on the ground. According to Yang Niu, one of the authors of a study of this plant published in the journal Current Biology, there is no evidence to prove that the wild varieties are better than the farmed ones.

Niu and his colleagues have extensively studied plants with the ability to camouflage and were intrigued by this plant’s camouflaging nature while being fully aware of the fact that it was not consumed by herbivores. This led them to consider that the herb was camouflaging not from animals, but humans.

To test this theory, the researchers approached local herbalists in the area, who knew the areas that the plant usually grows in, and the number of plants that were picked. They also determined the heavily harvested areas and the areas hidden amidst the rugged mountain terrain. Once they obtained this information, they used a spectrometer, used to measure wavelengths of light, to determine the colour. Using this spectrometer, the researchers tested the colour levels of the herb at different locations and were able to find a connection between the colour of the herb and the accessibility of its location. They found out that the plants were more brightly coloured in less accessible places, but in locations where they were harvested in large numbers, the colours were duller.

Leading biologists across the world welcomed the study. Matthew Rubin, an evolutionary biologist at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, lauded the paper, calling it “groundbreaking”. Jill Anderson, a biologist at the University of Georgia, was more cautious, saying that the paper was indeed a tantalizing hypothesis, but that further proof is required to confirm this theory. Some other plants that have adapted to human harvesting include the Snow Lotus, another threatened Chinese plant, which is now four inches shorter on average as compared to a century ago. American ginseng growing in eastern United States has also grown shorter and producing smaller leaves.

In conclusion, Niu said that the Chinese government is working on updating Fritillaria delavayi’s conservation status to better reflect its endangerment and provide stronger protection measures for the herb species.

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